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Islamic Society ( 20 Jul 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Understanding Of Madrasas As Traditional Institutions Is Erroneous; They Have Been Shaped By The Modern Colonial Context

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

21 July 2021

The Understanding That Madrasas Belong To The Private Sphere Of Muslims Is A Recent Innovation

Main Points:

•        There was no such distinction in the medieval Muslim world.

•        Curriculum has also undergone significant changes.

•        Deoband banished the study of rational sciences which itself was an innovation.


One of the enduring myths about madrasas is that they have remained the same since centuries. If one asks any manager of a madrasa, one gets the answer that the institution has remained unchanged since it was established during the time of prophet Muhammad. This assertion not just flies in the face of known historicity but also runs against common sense. Partly this argument is made by Muslims to prove that madrasas have been part and parcel of Muslim culture since its inception and hence the advocacy to reform it is an attack on their historical sensitivity. Indeed, this argument has bailed them from state intrusions, as they have successfully convinced the Indian state that as the locus of Muslim cultural expression, madrasas are the internal affairs of the community.


Also Read: Madrasa Education is a Clear Violation of the Human Rights of Children: Sultan Shahin asks UNHRC to make Muslim Countries Stick to their Pious Declarations


In fact, this understanding of Islamic education as belonging to the private sphere of Muslims is itself a recent innovation. The distinction between private and public was for the first time introduced by the British colonial state. This distinction made religion into a ‘private’ matter and left it in the hands of respective communities. Deoband, established in 1867, adopted this distinction because this colonial logic served them well. They could always argue that since religion was the private matter of Muslims and that they were its custodians. Any state interference in this sphere was henceforth to be resisted. This distinction existed nowhere in the Muslim world. In fact, in India, matters of religion always had a public character. Moreover, in other contexts, the Ulama have always argued that Islam is a complete religion which regulates all aspects of life, be it public or private. At the same time, a colonial distinction was used because it suited their design.         

The idea of the madrasa has also undergone change. Today madrasas are primarily understood as centres of imparting religious learning. But was this the case since its inception or is this understanding of recent origin? It seems that this co-relation of madrasa with Islamic learning alone is not centuries old but can be traced, again, to the establishment of Deoband madrasa. Before that, Islamic education, was not organized and was largely the outcome of individual efforts of piety. This is not to say that there were no madrasas established by the king or the state, but again, they were not institutions in their own right as they remained personalistic in character.


Also Read: Evolution of Hadith Sciences and Need for Major Paradigm Shift in Role of Hadith Corpus and Scope of Madrasa Education


There was no fixed or standardized curriculum; it depended on the predilection of individual teachers. A teacher could be a master in a particular collection of hadith and students would travel to his place to learn that particular collection of hadith from him. But it was not necessary that such teachers would be masters of religious subjects alone. Teachers were known for their knowledge of medicine (Tibb), astronomy, etc. and students desirous of such specialized knowledge would seek them out. For much of the medieval period, there was no such specialization that exists today. Most religious teachers would also dabble in the practice of medicine.

The first push towards standardization seems to be the curriculum called Dars e Nizami, devised in the early 18th century at the Firangi Mahal madrasa in Lucknow. This curriculum for the first time fixed a number of years in which the syllabus had to be completed. Also, the curriculum was decidedly in favour of Manqulat (rational sciences). The content of Manqulat (revealed sciences) was kept to a minimum; the Quran and the Hadith were studied only through one commentary each. This process of standardization seems to be halted after the death of Aurangzeb (1707) but the curriculum was so popular and hegemonic that all future efforts called their curricula as the Dars e Nizami.

Even Deoband did so. Although it effected a fundamental change in the character of this syllabus. Deoband threw out the rational content in its entirety while at the same time it expanded the corpus of revealed sciences to include all the six classical traditions of hadith scholarship. Indeed, the founder of the Madrasa, Qasim Nanotwi categorically argued that there was no merit in studying the rational sciences except with the intention of refuting it. There was also active hostility towards the study of philosophy too which was dubbed as un-Islamic. So, in Deoband, we see a significant shift in the idea of madrasa which has stayed with us till now. Henceforth, madrasas were solely to be regarded as religious institutions. The contemporary understanding of madrasas as centres of religious learning alone has therefore much to do with Deoband.


Also Read: RESTRUCTURING MADRASA EDUCATION: Muslim Opponents of India’s 'Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act' are Enemies of Indian Muslims


The context in which this change took place was colonialism and the defeat of Muslim power. For the first time in centuries, the Muslim elite was without state power. For the religious elite, this loss of power was because Muslims had lost the path of the ‘true’ Islam. Taking away political power was God’s way of punishing them. That’s why it became important to educate Muslims in God’s ways and make them true followers of Islam. Education became the critical element in the arsenal to conscientise the masses. But this education was supposed to be only based on Quran and hadith. This change in the idea of the madrasa has been detrimental to Muslim interests but then that is another story.

The argument that madrasas have remained unchanged is simply bogus. It has undergone changes in terms of its curriculum, aims and methods from time to time. The present madrasas system therefore should not be understood as ‘traditional’ but rather as shaped by the modern colonial context. 


Arshad Alam is a columnist with


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